South Africa has arguably one of the strictest Covid-19 lockdowns in the world. At level 5, with less than a handful of recorded deaths, we were virtually imprisoned in our homes, not even allowed out to walk our dogs. Thankfully, level 4 eased things somewhat and Level 3, which came into effect on June 1, has seen us trickle-fed a few more tempting semblances of freedom.

But the one thing the government has so far refused to budge on – despite massive public outcry – is the ban on cigarette sales.

On April 23, President Ramaphosa gave smokers and the tobacco trade a brief flicker of hope when he announced cigarettes would once again be permitted under Level 4. Less than a week later however, there was an abrupt U-turn. Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, announced they had decided not to allow the sale of cigarettes after all.

It was move that, understandably, sparked outrage and widespread criticism – most of it directed at Dr Dlamini-Zuma herself – and for good reason, it now seems…

It has recently emerged that the Minister’s original justification for the about-turn – the fact that 2 000 submissions of objection to the unbanning had been received – was just another case of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

As it turned out, only 1 800 submissions were received, and only a little over a third of these actually had anything to do with smoking.

If it turns out that the Minister lied to keep the cigarette ban in place, it will seriously erode the trust of the public in our government and the Minister herself. The overriding impression, then, is that personal agendas are being pushed in a time of crises.

So, Is There Another Agenda Here?

Initially, the official reason given for the ban on cigarettes, and the subsequent refusal to lift it, was that it was for overall “health reasons.”

A report in the New York Times quotes Minister Dlamini-Zuma citing “Covid-19 reasons” as the rationale behind maintaining the ban in Level 3.

The author writes, “Ms. Dlamini-Zuma, a doctor who served as health minister in the 1990s and is now cooperative governance minister, said that ‘besides the effects itself on the person’s lungs,’ there were concerns that smoking could promote coronavirus infection.

“’The way sometimes tobacco is shared does not allow for social distancing,’ she said, ‘but actually encourages the spread of the virus.’”

Not surprisingly, this was a story no smoker was buying. Not least because it has absolutely no logical basis whatsoever.

Smokers sharing cigarettes (if this is, indeed, what they actually do) is no more dangerous a practice as people sharing cooldrinks, chips, personal space, eating utensils and a host of other items we are still permitted access to.

But you can’t keep a good smoker down for long, and it didn’t take much time for an underground market in a weird and wonderful array of “illegal” cigarettes to spring up. Admittedly, this market was actually thriving before the lockdown, but it’s positively booming at the moment.

In this article from News24, the writer reports that, in an investigation into how difficult it was to find illicit cigarettes, it took just four minutes and 28 seconds for one of their journalists to successfully purchase a cigarette.

It also cites recent research from the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) which found that as many as 25% of people living in informal settlements were able to buy cigarettes.

There is a plentiful supply on the black market, and you don’t have to go very far to get your nicotine fix. Everyone from car guards to petrol attendants seems to have a ready supply for your smoking pleasure.

So clearly, the cigarette ban is not having the desired effect.

Or is it?

That depends, of course, on which side of the fence you happen to play.

Virulent critics of Minister Dlamini-Zuma have accused her of outright corruption, saying she is profiting from the sale of illegal cigarettes. Being photographed with noted tobacco smuggler Adriano Mazotti helped add fuel to this particular fire, but both Zuma and Mazotti have denied the accusations.

There’s no denying, however, a couple of stark facts:

  • Illegal cigarettes are selling at between 200% to 500% of normal prices. This means the illicit cigarette trade is worth somewhere in the region of between R2.5 and R6 billion per month. All unregulated, and all in cash!
  • There is absolutely no quality control over these illegal cigarettes, so who knows what’s in them? Many have been found to contain substances such as rooibos tea, sub-standard tobacco and even wood shavings! Needless to say, this will do a lot more harm to your lungs than legitimate products.

Are We Witnessing The Rise Of A Nanny State?

Our government is there to serve the people of South Africa. We are adults and should be treated as such. We should be afforded the appropriate respect and allowed to exercise our own good judgement. We all have legal vices – fast cars, fast women, slow horses and a dop ‘n chop – so let’s just be allowed to get on with our lives and enjoy them responsibly!

Not to mention the fact that, according to a Q&A released by the World Health Organisation on May 27, there is not one single study that shows smokers are more prone to contracting Covid-19 than non-smokers.

If the minister really feels a nanny state is in order, then she should also ban the sale of sugary drinks, alcohol, meat, sweets, chips, cars and anything else with the potential to do us some kind of harm.

It’s just one more example of many, many lockdown decisions that don’t seem to have been thought through at all, and which, instead of helping us weather the situation more robustly, are causing further suffering for thousands of South Africans who are already struggling under the social, mental and financial impacts of the lockdown.

Minister Dlamini-Zuma simply appears oblivious to the fact that stopping smoking is very stressful at the best of times (which these certainly aren’t), but it’s particularly difficult under lockdown. But instead of acknowledging the plight of South Africa’s 11 million smokers, she simply stated – publicly – that now would be a good time for them to quit.

It’s Time For A Reality Check

Instead of claiming to be concerned with the health of South Africa’s 11 million smokers, Minister Dlamini-Zuma should perhaps be focussing her attention on the other effects the cigarette ban is having.

For a start, the South African Revenue Service (SARS) is losing about R1.2 billion a month on the “sin tax” placed on cigarettes. That’s around R14 billion a year.

On top of that, experts are worried the booming illicit cigarette trade is part of a much bigger and more worrying picture of organised crime in our country. One that includes narcotics, human trafficking, wildlife trade and pouching, and prostitution.

We should be bracing for a massive crime wave when we re-open our economy. Couple this with widespread job losses and starvation and malnutrition, particularly among schoolchildren, and the “cure” for Covid-19 looks set to be far worse than the disease.

Are We Losing Faith In Our Leaders?

The way leaders handle themselves in a crisis is often a telling reflection of their true character and motivations. There have been times during the Coronavirus pandemic when President Ramaphosa’s leadership has been outstanding. But his apparent refusal to listen to reason and public opinion on certain issues is eroding the confidence many placed in him during the early stages of the lockdown.

South Africa is crying out for ethical leaders.

Servant leaders.

For a few brief moments, we really thought we had them. But now our confidence in our elected leaders’ ability to lead us safely through this crisis has been severely undermined by ill-considered, illogical and damaging decisions.

What do you think? What do you feel is the real impact of these lockdown regulations on general morale and overall confidence in our leadership?

Please share your views.

PS:  This writer is a non-smoker, but the precedent set by the Minister is very dangerous.

DON’T LIE TO THE PUBLIC TO PUSH YOUR OWN AGENDA!